Researchers in the Netherlands and in Wisconsin have created new strains of the H5N1 bird flu virus that for the first time can be transmitted through the air. Right now, a person has to spend some time in fairly close contact with birds, usually chickens or ducks, in order to acquire this virus. The bad news is that the virus has killed 60 percent of the nearly 600 people who have come down with it. In the last month, two men have died of the disease in China.
This research has provoked worries that publishing the recipe for making the bird flu virus airborne could enable bioterrorists to make it and thus result in a devastating global epidemic that could kill billions of people. The editorial page editors at the New York Times are so frightened at the prospect that they have called on the researchers to destroy their new strain of virus.
Initially, the researchers had planned to publish their results in the leading scientific journals Science and Nature. Now they have agreed to a two-month moratorium [PDF] and the World Health Organization is convening a meeting of prominent influenza researchers to discuss what should be done. Science requires transparency and openness to operate. The question posed by this research is: Are there some truths that are so dangerous that they should be suppressed?
In 2005, the scientific censorship issue with regard to influenza research was raised when researchers reported that they had decoded the genome of the Spanish flu virus that killed as many 100 million people in the early 20th century. Peter Palese, the lead researcher on the Spanish flu genome project, argues strongly against scientific censorship:
After we published our full paper in 2005 (T. M. Tumpey et al. Science 310, 77–80; 2005), researchers poured into the field who probably would not otherwise have done, leading to hundreds of papers about the 1918 virus. As a result, we now know that the virus is sensitive to the seasonal flu vaccine, as well as to the common flu drugs amantadine (Symmetrel) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu). Had we not reconstructed the virus and shared our results with the community, we would still be in fear that a nefarious scientist would recreate the Spanish flu and release it on an unprotected world. We now know such a worst-case scenario is no longer possible.
Some have suggested that the details of new H5NI research be given only to vetted scientists. Palese explains why this is a bad idea:
Giving the full details to vetted scientists is neither practical nor sufficient. Once 20–30 laboratories with postdoctoral fellows and students have such information available, it will be impossible to keep the details secret. Even more troublesome, however, is the question of who should decide which scientists are allowed to have the information. We need more people to study this potentially dangerous pathogen, but who will want to enter a field in which you can't publish your most scientifically interesting results?
Finally, Palese points out:
Knowing which mutations render the virus more dangerous could help on a public-health level — if an outbreak of bird flu occurs in Taiwan, for instance, and researchers sequence the virus and see those mutations, we would know to ramp up the production of appropriate vaccines and antiviral drugs.
Incidentally, I believe that the risk of future outbreaks in humans is low: H5N1 has had the opportunity to cause widespread pandemics for many, many decades, yet it has not done so. Although we know the virus is transmissible between ferrets, little is known about how it will behave in other animals, including humans.
The more danger a pathogen poses, the more important it is to study it (under appropriate containment conditions), and to share the results with the scientific community. Slowing down the scientific enterprise will not 'protect' the public — it only makes us more vulnerable.
Back in 2005, in my column, Open Secrets of Biosecurity, I concluded:
...the real defense against bioterrorism is the open and international scientific enterprise itself. Just as advances in scientific knowledge have created the vaccines, antibiotics and antivirals that defend us against nature's immemorial bioterrorism, so will future advances protect us against man-made agents of disease. Scientific openness, not cloak-and-dagger secrecy, is our real bioterrorism defense.
Palese is correct when he argues that scientific secrecy would likely make us more vulnerable to both a natural outbreak or bioterrorism rather than safer from them.